Thursday, September 30, 2010

BPE 2010, day two

Archivist of the United States David Ferriero notices that I'm photographing him, 2010 Best Practices Exchange, Phoenix, Arizona, 29 September 2009.

As promised, here are the most interesting things that came to the fore during the second day of the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE):
  • Archivist of the United States David Ferriero seems like a really cool guy. He was this morning’s keynote speaker, and he deliberately allocated a lot of time to answering attendee questions. I’ve heard him speak before, but not in such an informal setting. He’s affable, articulate, funny, passionate about the rich store of materials that the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration holds, an ardent advocate of sound records management, and keenly aware of the digital challenges confronting archives and libraries.
  • Writing a policy is not an accomplishment. Policies pave the way for accomplishments: they enable us to transform our professional principles and theoretical frameworks such as the Open Archival Information System Reference Model into real-world programs and day-to-day actions.
  • Control doesn't always reduce risk. A lot of people assume that a data center that they operate and control is inherently more secure than a cloud computing environment -- even if unauthorized individuals could easily access the data center and walk off with hardware and the inner workings of the cloud environment can be accessed only by authorized support personnel or highly sophisticated hackers.
  • When making the case for funding archives to elected officials, do your homework. Research each official's background and interests, tailor your remarks accordingly, and, if meeting with an individual legislator, try to bring with you a record that is likely to capture his or her interest. One archivist discovered that a legislator was particularly fond of a mid-20th century elected official and brought a record in which the official outlined his beliefs about health care policy. The legislator, who was deeply moved, brought the record onto the floor of the legislature and read it aloud and later facilitated the return of alienated records to the archivist's repository.
  • If you're responsible for creating an emergency response plan, remember that human life is paramount, that first responders know what they're doing, and that you need to demonstrate that you know what you're doing. In the event of an emergency, you want to be able to report whether the building has been cleared, whether people with special needs or disabilities are sheltering in place or need to be checked on, and to hand over a floor plan.
  • "Everything we invent is about to become obsolete." In other words, let’s just accept that every digital preservation tool we create has a short life span and move on.

BPE 2010, day one

The 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE) got off to a roaring start this morning, and I'm deeply glad to be here. I've had the privilege of attending all five BPE's, and I've always found the BPE incredibly valuable. Unlike most other conferences, which tend toward formal presentations concerning past successes, it's informal and focused on lessons learned -- and in some instances, abject failure is astoundingly instructive. Moreover, it's a lot smaller than many archival conferences and attendees are really encouraged to reach out to people they don't know. I've gotten to know a lot of interesting people via the BPE. Some of them are now my "go-to" people whenever a new, thorny electronic records problem comes my way, and I get calls and e-mails from other people I've met at the BPE.

For a couple of reasons, I'm not going to post detailed recaps of every BPE session. Instead, I'm simply going to highlight some of the most noteworthy and interesting things that come up during each day's discussion and do detailed recaps . I have a couple of reasons for adopting this approach. First, I just can't keep up. Drafting detailed recaps is grueling, and I really need to hit the ground running when I get back to Albany. Second, this year, all of the attendees have been asked to adhere to Chatham House rules. In essence, unless an attendee states that she or he is going on record or expressly gives permission to share his or her insights with attribution, what is said at the BPE stays at the BPE. I'm going to honor this request, so I won't post name personal or institutional names unless I've gotten clearance to do so.

So what came up during today's discussions and sessions? Some really interesting stuff:
  • Things really are tough all over. Financial hardship has been a constant topic of formal and informal discussion this year. State archives and state libraries throughout the nation are dealing with furloughs, layoffs, or early retirements, or some combination of these things. Essential investments -- digital preservation infrastructure, capital construction -- are being deferred or cancelled outright. Governmental dysfunction that was irritating but tolerable when times were better is making bad fiscal and policy situations even worse. Fewer and fewer archivists and librarians are responsible for doing more and more work, and people are frustrated, worn-out, and increasingly worried that they won't be able to meet their obligations to current and future citizens. None of us know how to solve these problems, but, at least in my experience, being able to offer and receive consolation and to learn how others are dealing with similar problems is both comforting and inspiring.
  • Relationships between state archives and state information technology departments continue to evolve in all sorts of interesting ways. One state archives is building a digital repository and plans to support the repository's operations via imposition of ingest fees that will go to the state archives and storage and preservation fees that will go to the state's information technology (IT) agency, which will maintain the repository's infrastructure. In some respects, this is a sound decision: the state archives currently charges agencies a fee for storing paper records, and state agencies are accustomed to paying service fees to the state's IT agency and as a result haven't raised many objections to the proposed digital repository fees. Moreover, the IT agency has started forcing agencies wishing to make large-scale IT investments to submit their plan to the state archives for review and, if necessary, revise their plans to address long-term preservation needs; this review process means more work for state archives staffers, but it helps to ensure that agencies manage their records appropriately. Another state archives has traditionally had difficulty getting its IT agency to take any interest in records management or digital preservation. However, now that the IT agency has realized that it can charge agencies for records-related services, it is claiming that it, not the state archives, should be responsible for providing such services.
All of today's sessions were first-rate, but I found Abby Smith Rumsey's presentation and discussion concerning the economics of digital preservation particularly compelling. Abby was a member of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, which issued a superb report aimed at funders of digital preservation activities, and she framed digital preservation in economic terms:
  • Preservation is a derived demand. In other words, people don't care about preservation in and of itself. They care about the end result: they want access to old material, and if making these materials accessible requires preservation work, we archivists and librarians need to do preservation work. Access, not preservation, is the public good we must "sell" to funders and the public.
  • Preservation is a depreciable durable asset. In other words, if we don’t take care of cultural heritage materials, they will eventually cease to exist.
  • Digital preservation is not a rival in consumption. Unlike books, it costs almost nothing to maintain an extra copy of a digital file, and this can be a problem: for example, a lot of smaller colleges and universities assume that the big research libraries will preserve scholarly journals and that they themselves don't have any preservation obligations.
  • Digital preservation is characterized by temporal dependency and path dependency. Things keep changing, and the preservation choices we make today constrain the future choices that we and our successors must make.
  • Preservation is a clear case of market failure: the needs are so long-term that the market can’t spontaneously deal with it.
She also emphasized some things that we archivists and librarians know (or should know) deep down but sometimes forget when consumed with our day-to-day struggles:
  • Sustainable digital preservation is not about getting more money. Instead, it’s about how we as a society decide to allocate scant resources and persuading people that digital preservation warrants funding. Thinking that throwing money at a problem will solve that problem is a sign that we haven't adequately articulated the problem.
  • Economic incentives for preservation are usually mandate-driven, but in the absence of strong enforcement and punitive measures, mandates are easily ignored. Moreover, preservation experts may need to devote a lot of effort to helping people comply with mandates.
  • Archives and libraries are not digital preservation stakeholders. We are instead proxy organizations that tend to the interests of digital preservation stakeholders. For example, state archives and state libraries are ultimately responsible to the citizens they serve.
She also highlighted how archivists may, in at least a few respects, be particularly well-suited to addressing digital preservation challenges:
  • Archivists are accustomed to identifying materials that warrant preservation and destroying others after they have reached the end of their useful life. Resource limitations all but guarantee that cultural heritage professionals and scientists will have to determine which digital resources warrant preservation, but librarians and scientists aren't accustomed to making such determinations.
  • Preservation requires a series of decisions to be made over the lifecycle of digital assets. We need to act early, create contingency plans, and prepare for handoffs to future generations. Archivists, who are accustomed to thinking in terms of the records lifecycle, are accustomed to making such plans; however, most other information professionals aren’t.
The discussion that took place in the wake of Abby's presentation was equally interesting. One attendee speculated that the future of digital preservation may resemble recent developments in the history of manufacturing: older companies with aging workforces and extensive legacy infrastructure have suffered as a result of economic change, and new companies that lack such burdens have thrived. Could libraries and archives be rendered obsolete by new organizations that figure out how to preserve digital materials but lack the encumbrance of traditional library or archival practices and principles? Abby suggested that this probably won't happen: archives and libraries have a lengthy history of looking after the public interest and enjoy a high degree of public trust as a result.

The discussion then turned to possible alternative models of sustainable digital preservation, and the attendees advanced some really provocative models:
  • Community-supported agriculture. People who have an interest in ensuring the survival of a given grouping of digital assets could pay directly for preservation services and engage in dialogue with providers of such services.
  • Non-profit news gathering organizations. Journalists affected by the contraction of traditional media outlets have created non-profit organizations that secure funding from an array of sources and publish their findings on the Web.
  • The Grateful Dead Archive. Passionate people create collections during their spare time because they have private incentives to do so, share the materials they've amassed over the Web, and then discover that traditional heritage institutions are interested in acquiring their collections.
Fantastic session. And if you haven't had the chance to check out the Blue Ribbon Task Force's report, you really owe it to yourself to do so.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Catching up

The American Southwest, as seen from Continental Airlines Flight 362, 28 September 2010, 4:44 PM Mountain Standard Time.

Sorry for the sparse posting as of late. I'm currently in Phoenix for the 2010 Best Practices Exchange (BPE), and getting ready to spend a few days out of the office took up all of my time. I'll be posting about the BPE during the next few days, but in the meantime here are a few things that you might want to check out:
  • Earlier this evening, Academy Award®-winning actor and passionate proponent of civics education Richard Dreyfuss received the 2010 Empire State Archives and History Award from the New York State Archives Partnership Trust. This morning, Dreyfuss spoke to WAMC morning host Joe Donahue about the award and the value of civics education, and you can listen to their discussion here. WXXA has just posted a brief clip of his
  • In other Richard-related news, Digital Preservation Pioneer Richard Pearce-Moses, formerly of the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Records, was the subject of a great profile concerning his new gig: he's the first director of Clayton State University's Master of Archival Studies program. Unlike most other American archival programs, the program that Richard is building is fully free-standing; it's not part of a larger library/information science or history program. It's going to be really interesting to see what Richard does with this program and whether it leads to the creation of more archives-centric graduate programs.
  • The cover story of last Sunday's New York Times Magazine highlights the complicated, fraught, and -- there really no other word for it -- Kafkaesque custodial history of some of Franz Kafka's manuscripts.
  • Microsoft expects that Blu-Ray discs will soon become obsolete, but Jason Mick at Daily Tech and Robert Butler of the Kansas City Star note that, for a variety of reasons, commercially produced Blu-Ray discs and DVDs will no doubt be around for a little longer than the entertainment industry might like.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Why I'm an archivist, not a natural history curator

Like a lot of archivists, I've got a few war stories. I've processed records that were housed in a rat- and roach-infested basement, moved moldy records out of a psychiatric center building slated for demolition, and helped to transfer vast quantities of red-rotted volumes from one storage location to another. However, few of the materials with which I've worked smell. I'm familiar with the musty aroma of records that have endured decades of damp conditions, the charred odor of records that were singed in a fire, and the vinegar/plastic smell of decaying electronic storage media, but I have yet to run into any records that really offend.

In contrast, some of my colleagues at the New York State Museum work with materials that, put it mildly, stink. At the moment, the museum's Curator of Mammals and several other staffers are, um, processing the remains of a 50-foot fin whale and a 40-foot humpback whale that were ensnared in fishing nets and washed ashore last winter.

After they were found, the bodies of the whales were cut up, moved to a rural area in western Massachusetts, and allowed to decompose under a tarp for several months. Now, my State Museum colleagues have moved the remains -- which are still maggoty -- to the Albany area so that they can prepare to accession the whales' skeletons. Their work is far from done:
State Museum staffers still have labor left, cutting away tissue, power-washing the bones and scrubbing them with a weak ammonia solution. They may end up burying some of the bones in horse manure, as recommended, to speed up decomposition. Finally, the bones will require a good, long airing out of six months or longer.
The museum currently holds an Atlantic right whale skeleton, and these new acquisitions will complement its existing holdings quite nicely. Moreover, they have research value:
Scientists will be able to study the whales' inner ears and the pathology of their bones for signs of decompression sickness, known as "the bends." There is a theory posited by some researchers that powerful sonar used by Navy vessels may disturb and disorient whales so that they surface too quickly and contract the bends -- a formation of nitrogen bubbles in the blood and tissues when ascending rapidly from a drive. The bends are marked by severe pains in the joints, cramps, paralysis and even death.
I understand why the museum wants to acquire these specimens. At the same time, I can't help but think: eeeeeeeeewwwwww! I have boundless respect for the strong-willed, strong-stomached museum staffers who are processing these skeletons, and I hope that these skeletons impress and educate museum visitors and help scientists figure out how to save the lives of other whales. However, I think I'll continue to work with records.

Skeleton of Atlantic right whale, New York State Museum, 22 September 2010. The flipper bones are currently being rearticulated and will be reattached to the skeleton in a few weeks.

Monday, September 13, 2010

2010 Capital Region Archives Dinner

The 15th Annual Capital Region Archives Dinner will be held on Wednesday, October 6, at the Edison Club in Rexford, New York.

Featured speaker Dr. Gerald Zahavi, Professor of History and Director of the Documentary Studies Program at the University at Albany, SUNY, whose work centers upon General Electric's presence in the Capital Region, will discuss Association Island, a summer vacation retreat and conference center that GE owned for half a century and detail how non-textual records can shed light on "the often hidden social and cultural dimensions of economic history." Gerry, who was one of my favorite professors in graduate school, is a first-rate speaker and has always been an ardent supporter of archives and archivists, so I think attendees will be in for a real treat. Moreover, his speech and the venue will complement each other quite nicely: the Edison Club was founded by GE employees.

The cost to attend this year's Archives Dinner is $35.00 per person, payable by check to "Archives Dinner" and mailed to Hon. Kathleen Newkirk at 331 Clapper Road, Selkirk NY 12158.

Please be sure to indicate your choice of entree (or, if you're purchasing more than one ticket, the entree choice of each person in your party): Chicken Marsala, Baked Scrod with Lemon-Wine Sauce, Sirloin of Beef, or Vegetable Lasagna. All meal choices come with oven-roasted red potatoes and glazed carrots and apple dumpling for dessert.

Tickets are also available from Yours Truly and other members of the Archives Dinner Committee.

Please be sure to make a reservation or purchase a ticket from an Archives Dinner Committee member no later than 30 September 2010.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

A mis/adventure in downtown Albany

Over the weekend, I noticed that the partial demolition of Wellington Row, a group of historic buildings located at 132-140 State Street in downtown Albany, was well underway. On Monday evening, I decided to head downtown and take a few photographs documenting the status of the work done to date.

Wellington Row: the former Albany Elks Lodge (built 1911-1913) at 138 State Street and the former Berkshire Hotel (built ca. 1890) at 140 State Street, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010. "La Promenade," the sculpture in front of the Berkshire, is one of 16 works by Seward Johnson that comprise the city's 2010 Sculpture in the Streets exhibition.

Wellington Row is a stone's throw away from the New York State Capitol and one building away from one of the city's busiest intersections, and for years it has symbolized downtown Albany's late 19th- and early 20th-century elegance and its postwar hard times.

Wellington Row: the John Taylor Cooper House (built ca. 1825) at 134 State Street and the Wellington Hotel (built ca. 1910) at 136 State Street, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010. To the far left, you can see 132 State Street (built ca. 1850?), the former home of Christian Brothers Academy, which is now located in the suburb of Colonie.

Until recently, Wellington Row was owned by a foreign firm determined to allow the buildings to fall apart so that it could demolish them and build a convention center on the site. Sadly, city officials were (in my opinion) unwilling to do anything about the situation until the buildings themselves were beyond salvaging; although they repeatedly denied the owner permission to tear down the buildings, they took legal action against the owner only after a large piece of the cornice of the Wellington Hotel building fell to the sidewalk in 2004.

Detail, facade of the former Berkshire Hotel, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010.

The current owner is apparently committed -- construction seems to have stalled -- to demolishing the buildings but preserving and incorporating their facades into a new structure. At present, all that remains of the Berkshire Hotel is its facade, which has been braced to prevent its collapse. Assuming that this project continues, all five buildings that comprise Wellington Row will eventually look like the Berkshire Hotel.

Former Elks Lodge, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010. In its heyday, this building was doubtless quite elegant. Albany's current Elks Lodge is located in the city's Pine Hills neighborhood.

A few minutes after I took the above picture, the batteries in my camera died. I opened my car, fished fresh batteries out of my camera case and swapped them for the dead ones, closed the car door . . . and realized instantly that I had locked my keys inside my car.

After standing around nonplussed for a couple of minutes, I decided to walk home. Albany is a small city, I live reasonably close to its downtown, and I drove to Wellington Row only because I wanted make the most of the remaining daylight. Moreover, the weather was splendid and I knew that my friend and neighbor Ron, who has keys to my house and my car, would be at home.

Empire State Plaza, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010. The inverted pyramid at the south end of the plaza is the Cultural Education Center, which houses the State Archives, State Museum, and State Library.

I got to spend time in parts of the city that I rarely get to see on foot or in the evening. I began by walking up State Street past the State Capitol (parts of which are currently sheathed in scaffolding) and into the midst of the Empire State Plaza, which houses many New York State government agency offices.

The plaza is home to numerous works of modern art, and one of my favorites is George Rickey's kinetic sculpture, Two Lines Oblique (1968-1971). I had my camera with me, and I took advantage of the relative quiet (you will see a lone jogger pass through) to take a short video of the sculpture in motion. The footage is a little jumpy -- my tripod was locked in my car -- and half of the lights in the State Libary were on for some reason, but the wind kept the sculpture moving quite nicely.

Lincoln Park Pool and Pool House, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010.

After leaving the plaza, I walked through Lincoln Park, which is home to a mammoth swimming pool built by the Works Progress Administration in the late 1930s. I've walked by the pool countless times, but never on a late summer evening. I'm glad that I did: it was perfectly still and luminous in the fading light.

Lincoln Park Pool and Pool House, Albany, New York, 6 September 2010.

The south side of Lincoln Park offers some spectacular views of the Empire State Plaza, and I was hoping to take some pictures of the plaza upon reaching it. Unfortunately, night had fallen by the time I reached the south side of the park and I couldn't get a decent shot without my tripod, so I made my way to my friend Ron's place. He kindly handed over my spare keys and then drove me to my car, thus ending an evening's unplanned adventure.

I hope you enjoyed seeing these photographs and video as much as I enjoyed taking them. During the next few months, I'll be making an effort to photograph various sections of the city of Albany, so there may be a few more Albany-centric posts in the relatively near future.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Digitization can save lives

Archivists are accustomed to asserting that creating digital surrogates of paper records and analog recordings will increase access and facilitate genealogical and other types of historical research. We're not used to thinking about the ways in which digitization can save lives, but a new short film, Saving Data, Saving Lives, highlights just how digitizing historical weather data can save the lives of millions of people who might otherwise perish as a result of floods, drought, and other catastrophic weather events.

The film, which is an entry in LinkTV's ViewChange Online Film Contest, focuses on the work of the International Environmental Data Rescue Organization (IEDRO), which digitizes developing nations' weather observations and makes the results freely available to scientists who can identify areas that are particularly flood-prone and predict the frequency of catastrophic weather events. Governments and individuals living within these nations can then plan accordingly.

Saving Data, Saving Lives is a little more than 5 minutes long, and I strongly encourage you to take the time needed to watch it (note: the audio sounded muffled when played through my speakers, but was okay when played through headphones). I also encourage you to register at LinkTV and affirm the importance of IEDRO's work by voting for Saving Data, Saving Lives. You may cast one vote every 24 hours until 12:00 PM Pacific Time, 15 September 2010; details are available here.

Thanks to Chris Muller for alerting me to this video!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

DigiMan and the PLANETS Testbed

Hot dongle! I don't know how I missed it, but the tireless crew at Digital Preservation Europe created yet another entertaining animated short film highlighting their work. Team Digital Preservation and the PLANETS Testbed highlights the six steps that users of the PLANETS Testbed follow when testing potential digital preservation tools.

The PLANETS Testbed is accessible to anyone with an interest in digital preservation; all you have to do is register for a free account. I've never had the chance to play around with it, but Chris Prom posted a detailed review over at Practical E-Records and I'm really intrigued by it; sadly, I don't have much time for pure research these days.

The PLANETS project, which was funded by the European Union, wrapped up a few months ago, so we might not get to see any more of Digi-Man's adventures. However, all of the Team Digital Preservation videos remain available via YouTube, and they're a great resource for anyone who needs to convey the challenges of digital preservation to non-technical people.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

2010 New York Archives Month poster

October is New York Archives Month, and the 2010 Archives Month poster, which features a great image from the holdings of the Rochester Museum and Science Center Archives, is now available. If you would like to help publicize Archives Month, your friendly Documentary Heritage Program (DHP) Regional Archivist has a supply of posters on hand.

If you work at a repository that is hosting a New York Archives Month event, please inform your DHP Regional Archivist, who will ensure that your event is listed on the New York State Archives' October 2010 Events and Activities calendar.

If your repository is located in the New York City area and your event is taking place between October 10-16, please contact both your DHP Regional Archivist and the Archivists Round Table of Metropolitan New York, which will list your event in its 2010 Archives Week calendar (NB: Archives Week listings must be submitted no later than September 15).